Wrong 'Spins' on Russia's Vote

RUSSIA'S recent parliamentary elections have given rise to a fresh wave of punditry from inside-the-beltway analysts who read the modern-day tea leaves in Moscow.

Once again, many of them urge the Western audience not to give up on President Boris Yeltsin as he prepares for next June's presidential election, and they declare that the strong vote of support for the Communist Party does not represent a huge "thumbs-down" for the process of economic reform.

But consider the conventional wisdom put forward by the same pundits before Russians went to the the polls on Dec. 17:

*Only the elderly would bother to vote, explaining the strength of the anticipated Communist victory.

*Ultra-nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky could be written off as a "clown" who had lost most of his support.

*"Nash Dom Rossiya," ("Our Home is Russia"), the so-called "party of power" led by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, would perform well thanks to its leader's links with the energy sector and other Russian powerhouses.

Now consider the facts. With turnout in excess of 60 percent, results indicate that 1 voter in 5 picked the Communist Party led by Gennady Zyuganov. While the elderly in Russia certainly represent the party's bedrock support, the size of the Communist vote suggests large numbers of the not-so-old were backing the party's message as well.

Shockingly, Mr. Zhirinovsky's misnamed Liberal Democratic Party won more than 1 vote in 10, and will form the third-largest party in the new Duma, losing just 13 of the seats it filled in the old legislature.

Our Home is Russia, with 9.89 percent of the votes cast, performed credibly in its first electoral outing, but can hardly claim a popular mandate for continuing the policies of the past two years. Even President Yeltsin's televised appeal just ahead of the elections failed to improve "Our Home's" performance.

Peddlers of conventional wisdom both within the Clinton administration and outside it maintain that the antireform vote has actually decreased since the last parliamentary elections two years ago. Further, they claim the results give Yeltsin an opportunity to unite the country's fractious democratic forces around his own candidacy in June.

But even at his most popular, the Russian leader failed to bring any measure of cohesion to the country's disparate reformist groups. With his democratic credentials stained first by the October siege of the Russian Parliament building, then by the unpopular war in Chechnya, there is no reason to believe that reformers will be keen to clamber aboard the Yeltsin bandwagon.

If the president decides against running for reelection, his natural successor, Mr. Chernomyrdin, will have a matter of weeks to organize his campaign.

In the event he reaches the second round, a two-candidate runoff, in the presidential poll, Chernomyrdin will then have to persuade other candidates, including reformist economist Grigory Yavlinsky, to endorse him. Given their history, one has to be cautious about the reformers' chances of reaching any sensible electoral agreements among themselves.

The voice of the Russian electorate should be accurately heard, not lost in a cacophony of misinterpretation. The voters have delivered an early warning of the danger hard-liners will pose if they triumph in Russia's presidential election, thus winning a chance to dominate policy at both the legislative and executive levels.

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